Workers Hammer No. 209
Down with age of consent laws!
Government out of the bedroom!
Hands off Roman Polanski!
Suddenly reviving their 32-year-old vendetta against world-renowned film director Roman Polanski, the US authorities orchestrated his arrest in Zurich on 26 September 2009, seeking his extradition to be sentenced for having had consensual sex with a precocious 13-year-old one day back in 1977. After two months in a Swiss jail, Polanski is now under house arrest in Switzerland having been granted bail for an outrageous $4.5 million.
Roman Polanski committed no crime. Facing a Hollywood show trial with multiple felony charges hanging over him, he pleaded guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a minor. Threatened with more prison time, having already served six weeks in state prison for “diagnostic testing”, Polanski, a French citizen, fled to Paris in 1978 to escape the puritan witch hunt. Despite the standing threat of extradition, Polanski has persevered in the face of the American judicial fatwa and managed to pursue his film career in Europe with artistic success, until now.
We oppose this outrageous witch hunt, as we have from the outset. In the US, the morality police are howling for Polanski’s blood. In France, after officials in the French government objected to Polanski’s arrest, they were met by howls of indignation from other politicians demanding that Polanski face “justice” in the US. Meanwhile, Polanski has long avoided travelling to Britain for fear the British state would arrest him and hand him over to the American authorities.
Many are asking the obvious question about Polanski’s sudden arrest: why now? The events occurred over three decades ago, Polanski is in his 70s and there is no “victim” to avenge. The woman involved, Samantha Geimer (then Gailey), now in her 40s and married with three children, has long opposed the continued prosecution of Polanski and has come forward several times requesting the charges be dropped. And, until recently, the US has not really turned the screws trying to extradite him.
But, as noted by author Robert Harris in a 30 September 2009 article in the New York Times, that changed after the release of the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. The documentary includes an interview with David Wells, who brags how he, as a then-deputy district attorney, coached Judge Laurence Rittenband (now deceased) on the case, in particular to ensure prison time for Polanski. Based on the film and other evidence, Polanski’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was denied in February by Los Angeles Superior Court judge Peter Espinoza. With perverse logic, Espinoza acknowledged that there was “substantial misconduct”, but refused to consider dismissal unless Polanski personally showed up in his court to face certain arrest.
With the frame-up story out—including in court — the prosecutors had nothing to lose in gunning for Polanski. Wells now ludicrously claims that he lied on camera and assumed the film would not be shown in the US. In response, Marina Zenovich, who made the documentary, noted that Wells had in fact “corroborated the account of events that he gave in my film” to the New York Times in an article printed on 17 July 2008.
At the time of Polanski’s original persecution we were virtually alone on the left in defending him. This remains the case today, as most of the left maintains a studious silence over his renewed persecution. We also recently defended Helen Goddard, a young teacher who was jailed for 15 months for having a consensual sexual relationship with a 15-year-old female pupil (see Workers Hammer no 208, Autumn 2009). When Weekly Worker (3 September 2009) published a letter defending Goddard by the Partisan Defence Committee, the class-struggle legal and social defence organisation associated with the Spartacist League, this drew a flurry of outrage from its readership. These guardians of “morality” were enraged by the PDC’s simple assertion that Helen Goddard committed no crime and that this relationship should be no business of either the school or the state.
An article by Eddie Ford published in Weekly Worker (10 September 2009) professes to agree with our call for abolishing reactionary “age of consent” laws, rightly saying that these “give the state powers to interfere in, and potentially criminalise, what should be purely personal and private matters”. But Ford’s conclusion belies this, saying “communists propose that there be alternative legislation to cover sexual misconduct and abuse, based on both effective consent and the empowerment of youth”. As we noted in a 14 November letter to Weekly Worker, “In other words, there are some bedrooms in which the government does belong, if it deems that ‘sexual misconduct’ has taken place. This exposes the CPGB’s touching faith in the benign nature of the capitalist state, which you entrust to establish the principle of ‘effective consent’ and to regulate the sexual activity of youth and children.”
In his 26 November response, Eddie Ford reiterates the call for “alternative legislation” and adds that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s call for the abolition of “age of consent” laws forms “part of a whole raft of demands that we fight for in the here and now”, ie under capitalism. The idea that the capitalist state will ever introduce legislation based on “effective consent and the empowerment of youth” is downright laughable. The capitalist state — including its cops, courts and prisons — is not a neutral arbiter and cannot be pressured into acting in the interests of youth or the oppressed. It is the instrument for the suppression of the exploited by the exploiters. As such it plays a key role in enforcing the oppression of women (and youth) alongside organised religion and the patriarchal family, which remains the central instrument for the subjugation of women under capitalism. The family is critical for the ruling class to pass on its property to “legitimate” heirs and to instil obedience to bourgeois codes of morality.
Among the most rabid moralists on the Polanski case is the small Socialist Fight group, which writes that “We can only hope that he does not escape again and is returned to serve a lengthy sentence.” Regarding the circumstances of the case, they add that “Whether [the girl] had had sex or taken drugs before or not is totally irrelevant; we reject the reactionary ‘precocious Lolita’ defence, only pleaded by those imbued with patriarchal antifeminist prejudices” (Socialist Fight, Autumn 2009). However, rape uniquely involves an act the circumstances of which determine whether it is a crime or voluntary sexual intercourse. In this case, the information about the young woman’s sexual activity with her boyfriend and her drug use is actually important in assessing what happened and determining that she knew what she was doing.
As for the “precocious Lolita” defence, we reject Socialist Fight’s statement that “there cannot be effective consent between a child and an adult in sexual relations. Before the age of sexual maturity this is a criminal matter.” Human sexuality is inherently complex and varied. Youth do, in fact, have sexual desires, and they act on them — desires that sometimes involve older people. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. For us the guiding principle for sexual relations is that of effective consent, which means that as long as the parties involved agreed to take part at the time, no one, least of all the state, has the right to tell them they can’t do it. To lump together sex with a minor, morning after regrets or the awkward and sometimes unpleasant experiences that are part of growing up, with rape, is to trivialise the savage brutality of the crime of rape. It is especially ridiculous to present the sexually experienced, post-pubescent teenager in the Polanski case as an unwitting child. Gore Vidal, who was working in the film industry at the time, recently responded to an interviewer (theatlantic.com, 28 October 2009) who asked him about Polanski: “Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of ?... The idea that this girl was in her communion dress, a little angel all in white, being raped by this awful Jew, Polako — that’s what people were calling him — well, the story is totally different now from what it was then
. Anti-Semitism got poor Polanski.”
While the age and supposed “immaturity” of the teenager are often cited as evidence she couldn’t possibly have consented, this doesn’t stop guardians of “morality” such as Socialist Fight from arguing that everything she said must be unconditionally believed as the absolute truth. We are led to believe that the girl’s 1977 grand jury testimony, which has been splashed all over the internet, “proves” that this was a case of “brutal rape”. Hardly. In fact, the prosecution’s case against Polanski was never believable. Grand juries, which determine if there is enough evidence for a trial, are a weapon of the prosecution where a witness cannot even be cross-examined by the defence. Moreover, the grand jury testimony in Polanski’s case “proves” nothing other than that the prosecution’s case rested on very shaky ground. In the midst of providing much obviously coached detail (like the year of the champagne she and Polanski were drinking), the young woman at one point admits: “I can barely remember anything that happened.” Moreover, Polanski, even if he is a rich, famous, white male, has as much right to be listened to as his accuser.
The renewed persecution of Polanski takes place at a time when “sexual tolerance has shrivelled”, as noted by Alexander Cockburn in CounterPunch (2-4 October 2009). The puritanical witch hunt against “sex offenders” waged by the Blair and Brown Labour governments under the guise of “protecting vulnerable children” is a modern-day version of Christian fundamentalist crusades against “sin”. In today’s reactionary climate, liberals and reformists buy into the hysteria that treats adults engaged in inter-generational sex as though they are de facto child rapists and murderers. The “anti-paedophilia” hysteria has even seen parents banned from accompanying their own children to public parks in Watford Borough because they have not been vetted by police! (bbc.co.uk, 29 October 2009).
The government has recently seized on the spurious crusade against “sex trafficking” to introduce draconian new legislation criminalising men who “pay for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force”, a move which marks a significant shift towards outlawing prostitution altogether by penalising customers. We Marxists oppose not only reactionary “age of consent” and “statutory rape” laws, but also other laws against “crimes without victims”, such as gambling, prostitution, drug abuse and pornography. Our defence of Polanski, like our longstanding defence of NAMBLA (North American Man/ Boy Love Association, which advocates the decriminalisation of consensual sex between men and boys), is based on our Marxist programme for women’s liberation through socialist revolution. Government out of the bedroom! Hands off Roman Polanski! Drop the charges!
We reprint below our article, “Stop the puritan witch hunt against Roman Polanski!” which first appeared in the newspaper of the Spartacist League/US, Workers Vanguard no 192, 10 February 1978. The political points in that piece are as relevant today as they were then, over three decades ago.
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Internationally acclaimed film director Roman Polanski has been driven out of the US by a vicious and vindictive official witch hunt. His legal tribulations began last 11 March when he was arrested in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel by Los Angeles police, responding to a woman’s charge that he had screwed her 13-year-old daughter. Ever since, Polanski’s nightmarish persecution — which included 42 days in the Chino, California state prison for degrading “psychiatric observation” — has escalated.
Polanski was recently released from Chino upon completion of the “psychiatric diagnosis”, which was reportedly “favorable”. However, Superior Court judge Rittenband immediately called the report a “whitewash” and informed the director’s lawyer that he intended to sentence Polanski to an additional 48 days in prison, to be followed by “voluntary deportation”. “He doesn’t belong in this country”, proclaimed this state-empowered guardian of the nation’s morals. Polanski, who holds French citizenship, fled to Paris on 1 February, where he remains while the prosecution plans ways to extradite him.
Rittenband, known locally as a “hanging judge”, obviously intends to make Polanski into an example. Douglas Dalton, the defendant’s attorney, has pointed out that of the 44 people convicted in Los Angeles County on similar charges in 1976, none ever spent any time in jail. Former state attorney general Younger also sought to make political hay out of the case as part of his general “law-and-order” campaign.
The national press has covered the case with a mixture of pious outrage and amused contempt as another typical “Hollywood scandal”. Time (28 March 1977) sneeringly referred to the director’s “tawdry troubles”, while the New York Post (2 February) devoted a full-page spread to the “new Hollywood” and Polanski’s “rat pack” of sexually swinging friends, making him out to be some kind of exotic, neurotic freak. This is not the first time that the state, gleefully cheered on by the sensation-mongering press, has driven prominent figures out of Hollywood. Errol Flynn, by all accounts an amiable man who never hurt anyone, was endlessly being dragged through the courts on account of his well-known preference for young women.
Ingrid Bergman was even denounced in Congress at the height of the McCarthyite witch hunt for her nerve in defiling her saintly “Joan of Arc” screen image by bearing a child out of wedlock to the Italian filmmaker Roberto Rosselini. Charlie Chaplin too was driven out of the “land of opportunity” — largely for political reasons, of course, but with a good dose of nasty sexual innuendo thrown in. The news-starved press runs periodic “exposés” of glamorous Hollywood in order to simultaneously titillate the public — for the most part trapped in deadly dull, poor and restricted lives — and channel their resentment against the rich and famous into satisfying but empty moral outrage.
What is genuinely “tawdry” and sordid about the Polanski case is not the actual incident itself, but the vile official persecution and the hideous hypocrisy of it all. The national press has carefully “omitted” the real facts of the case. The director had pleaded guilty on 8 August to unlawful intercourse with a minor in return for dismissal of other sex and drug charges against him, including rape, child molestation, oral copulation, sodomy and providing drugs to a minor. However, statements at the trial make it clear that what happened was hardly a case of rape!
The 13-year-old whom Polanski was accused of raping was described in the Los Angeles Times (20 August 1977) as “an aspiring actress”, whose mother had known Polanski for over a year and given permission to photograph her daughter for the French edition of Vogue magazine. One of those photography sessions with the celebrated director turned into an evening of sipping champagne, nude bathing in a Jacuzzi whirlpool bath and consumption by the girl of part of a Quaalude (a fashionable sedative). Following this there was sexual intercourse (translated in the press as “drugging and raping”).
It came out in court, however, that the girl had been “experimenting” with Quaaludes since the age of 10 or 11, and had a 17-year-old boyfriend with whom she had had prior sexual intercourse. A police detective on the case described her as looking to be “between 16 and 18”, while the girl’s mother at one point described her daughter rather lamely as “precocious in the midst of growing up”. Even Judge Rittenband in his probation report was forced to admit the blatantly obvious sexual maturity of the girl: “the prosecutrix was a well-developed young girl, who looked older than her years, and regrettably not unschooled in sexual matters”.
The incident occurred in the home of movie star Jack Nicholson, and it was partially on the testimony of Nicholson’s current roommate Angelica Huston, who had returned home later that evening, that Polanski was charged. Of course, her eager co-operation with the police could have had something to do with the fact that detectives searching the place for “evidence” found a vial of cocaine in her room.
Sexual and social life in southern California, with its thriving drug culture and troupes of precocious and sexually active groupies hanging about the fringes of the entertainment industry, produces thousands of “aspiring actresses” (and young male would-be “rock stars”) like the one Polanski had the misfortune to run into. Regardless of what one thinks of the scene as a whole, its all-too-obvious reality makes absurd Rittenband’s attempts to force rigid morality of the Victorian era into LA freeways and bedrooms.
Official repression and enforced standards of sexual activity have brought oppression and pain throughout history, from the cruel feudal “right of the first night” through the Catholic church’s intensely detailed rules on various sexual sins to the Victorians’ complete denial of the sexuality of women and children and their artificial prolongation of childhood. The sexual “norms” which the American state upholds today reek with hypocrisy in a society where scientific research into human sexuality is only now beginning to be published on a mass basis; where scientific breakthroughs in contraception have removed the legitimate fear of pregnancy, which for ages stood as a barrier to sexual pleasure; and where rigid taboos based on ignorance have lost much of their force.
All those laws which define “sex crimes” in America today are fundamentally aimed at glorifying and propping up the obscene and repressive prison of the family, for centuries the main institution for the oppression of women and children. The reactionary sentiment whipped up by the persecution of “sex deviants” is fuelled also by recognition that the family is the individual’s shelter in a hostile world. Only a broader social vision of the eventual replacement of the family as part of the transition to a classless society can defuse these fears that lumpenisation and social collapse are the only alternative to bourgeois morality.
The media’s exploitation of the Polanski case is more than mere sensationalism. His prosecution, like the furore over “kiddie porn”, feeds into the sanctimonious “Save Our Children” crusade epitomised by Anita Bryant’s anti-homosexual witch hunt — a reactionary offensive which hides behind the “innocence” of children to enforce bourgeois morality through the vindictive persecution of “deviants”.
The victimisation of those held to threaten the prevailing norms of family life often takes the most extreme forms. In November a 23-year-old princess and her commoner husband were executed in Saudi Arabia as “sex criminals”. By the traditions of her tribe, which is simultaneously the Saudi ruling class, shooting her and hacking off her husband’s head by sword in the public market of Jidda were socially quite “moral”. Judge Rittenband was not able to have Polanski beheaded in order to protect the “American Way of Life”, but the principle that the state has the right to enforce a “norm” on private sexual activity is equally held by the US bourgeoisie and the Bedouin sheikhs. Their methods simply vary a bit.
There are indeed very real and pervasive sex crimes committed in America today, but they are not only nor necessarily the ones splashed across the pages of the tabloid press. Fear, guilt and repression are loaded on the very young for even having sexual thoughts. Adolescent youth are inhumanly and artifically segregated from one another in schools and colleges. The religious strictures of the Catholic church and other religious sects, including orthodox Judaism, keep thousands of women trapped in an endless cycle of poverty, pregnancy and ever more mouths to feed. The aged are locked into grim and tiny rooms to die as their wardens debate “Should sex be allowed in old age homes?”
In ignorance and shame thousands of poor young women are forced into dangerous abortions without Medicaid, while the wealthy manage as they always have. The more unfortunate must either bear their unwanted children or else be sterilised permanently in government hospitals while great debate rages as to whether the young should be “exposed” to contraceptives and birth control information. There is also the hideous frustration and sexual tension built up within the family itself, with attendant beatings and brutalisation of children, including their sexual mistreatment. Rape and these other very real crimes, along with the prostitution which is the eternal companion of enforced monogamy, are the sordid reality behind “public morality”.
Polanski has been made the latest public target in the state’s vindictive attempts to uphold the puritan myth and hide this reality. Even his brilliant and often powerful films, like “Cul de Sac”, “Knife in the Water”, “Repulsion”, and more recently “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown”, have been used against him. As one Columbia Pictures executive moaned, “Roman’s got such a bad reputation for being a pervert film maker, he’s going to be judged guilty by his work” (Time, 28 March 1977).
What emerges from the director’s life, however, is a pattern of successful creative achievement in the face of a pattern of violence and tragedy. As a young boy Polanski saw his parents ripped away (to disappear permanently in the concentration camps) by Nazi stormtroopers. At 15 he was beaten almost to death with an iron bar by a maniac. After achieving a reputation as a talented filmmaker in Stalinist Poland, he emigrated to the West — where his pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was hideously slaughtered at home along with the couple’s friends by the crazed Manson family. And now Polanski has had the humiliation and torture of spending over a month in prison for “psychiatric observation”. (If this had occurred in the Soviet Union, where dissidents are barbarously locked up in mental hospitals, the director would already be high on the list of Jimmy Carter’s “human rights” campaign.)
Yet to the state of California Polanski is a “sex criminal” and it threatens more prison. It is no wonder why the victim chose to leave America. As he rightly observed, “They spent 42 days trying to drive me bizarre, but thank god I’m smart and rich...” (New York Post, 7 February). He went on:
“In America, California, I lose my wife, my baby, my friends, perhaps my sanity and almost my freedom. No, I say, no! The Nazis couldn’t take it away from me, nor could the grief of my losses. And this little whore and the California laws won’t either. I have given much and they have taken too much from me.”
Good for him. We are cheered to see that this ordeal of puritanical witch hunting has not broken Roman Polanski’s spirit.
The Polanski case has stirred up the poisonous fears and vicious repression which underlies bourgeois morality. As communists we oppose attempts to fit human sexuality into legislated or decreed “norms”. The guiding principle for sexual relations between people should be that of effective consent — that is, nothing more than mutual agreement and understanding as opposed to coercion. We hold that any and all consensual relations between individuals are purely their own concern, and the state has no business interfering in human sexual activity.
Drop the charges against Roman Polanski! No extradition! Stop the puritanical witch hunt!